When Americans think of the slave trade, they usually imagine ships pulling into East Coast harbors — not Texan ones. But Texas was once the site of an illegal racket led by pirates who brought slaves into the state and sold them throughout the United States. In the first wave of slave trading, between 1816 and 1821, a smuggling ring was in full effect on Galveston Island, a sandbar off the coast of southeast Texas, as well as other places along the Gulf of Mexico.
Before becoming a sovereign nation and then a part of the United States in 1845, Texas was under Spain’s rule, then Mexico’s. When Spaniards occupied Texas, between 1716 and 1821, they allowed slavery but later encouraged the freeing of slaves, although this wasn’t enforced. The first documented slave in Texas was Estevanico, a Moor who accompanied Spanish settlers. By 1808, the Atlantic slave trade had been abolished, but the domestic slave trade continued through the end of the Civil War. Texas became a strange mix of both anti- and pro-slavery sentiment.
Pirate culture has been glorified in America, but pirates were more than swashbucklers with a rugged aesthetic. They terrorized and robbed vessels at sea.
A privateer government was established in Texas in 1816 by José Manuel de Herrera, a Mexican rebel who proclaimed Galveston a port of the Mexican Republic. He appointed Louis-Michel Aury, a former French naval captain turned Mexican revolutionary, as the territory’s governor.
Galveston was a safe port for pirates to plunder vessels in the Gulf of Mexico and initiate raids on other smugglers. Their spoils, which included enslaved human beings, would eventually end up on the black market in New Orleans and other places throughout the United States. Cuban ships were a main target, as Cuba was a major depot of Africans during the illegal slave trade.